IN 2013, Deontay Wilder told me he was all muscle, bone and skin. He then showed me the tip of his whip.
Less sinister than it sounds, certainly less sexual, and entirely unrelated to cars, the whip in question was the technique behind a punch responsible for a 100 percent knockout ratio and the tip, according to its owner, was the part of that punch that set it apart from those of others.
“Get back,” Wilder said, snapping into an orthodox stance beside a heavy bag, as if about to set off a firework. “Watch.”
He revved up his right arm, locked and loaded, and then let fly with a punch.
Almost comical in its execution, Wilder made all the requisite noises and then looked my way immediately after his right hand connected with the bag and left its mark.
“Back home we talk about my punches as being like a whip,” the American, then 27, said. “And the most painful part of the whip is the tip. That’s where I do my damage – right at the end of my punches. The tip of the whip.”
Frank Joseph, the boxing agent who had earlier held pads for Deontay, rued a sudden inability to hold steady a plastic cup of coffee. As he waited for trembling hands to return to normal, he would rap his endorsement over the repetitive beat of Wilder abusing the heavy bag.
“You can tell how hard he hits just by looking at my f***ing hands,” grumbled Joseph, offering them for all to see. “Whenever you hold pads for anyone with a dig, you’ll feel it afterwards. But I’ve never had the full-on shakes like this before. His power is frightening.”
There were specks of coffee on the floor, poetically intermingling with the sweat falling from Wilder’s forehead.
“My power is totally natural,” Wilder stopped hitting the bag to say. “I really don’t try to knock guys out. I’ve just always been able to punch hard and have always been strong.
“Even back when I was a 185-pound footballer, I’d lift as much as the biggest guys on the team. There I was, this little, skinny guy, doing everything the bigger guys were doing. Nobody could believe it.”
That day, that month, Deontay Wilder, brought over to spar David Haye ahead of his ill-fated fight with Tyson Fury, was going to do as he pleased. He hit things; he swaggered about the place; he preached; he yelled; he illuminated otherwise drab rooms.
Better yet, his punch power, once akin to boxing’s Loch Ness monster, now, thanks to 29 consecutive knockouts, carried with it an authenticity that enabled him to showcase his wares in a London gym without any fear someone might pull him up on shoddy technique, lambast him for beating soft opposition, or simply tell him to stop whacking the bag and making so much damn noise – “BOMB SQUAD!”
It wasn’t always like that.
Two years earlier, in fact, when Wilder first arrived in London to spar Haye ahead of the Englishman’s fight with Wladimir Klitschko, the six-foot-eight puncher would never have imagined holding court in the gym and teaching and preaching and going on about tips and whips and dancing in between rounds of sparring as though he was at a family barbecue and Cameo’s ‘Candy’ had worked its way on to the playlist.
That Wilder, then 25, was a different proposition altogether. Raw and somewhat unsure of himself, he was full of basketball player athleticism but still in the process of figuring out how to transfer it from hardwood to canvas. He was erratic, excitable, reckless. He kept Haye on his toes without treading on them or lifting him off them.
Outside the ring, meanwhile, he was pleasant, down-to-earth and well-mannered. He was thankful for the opportunity. He was unknown, approached only because of his size and amateur achievements (an Olympic bronze medal in 2008 was no mean feat), and behaved accordingly, travelling with no airs and graces, and acquiescing to Haye’s demands, at least in terms of social niceties, respectful of the fact it was his gym and city. He was a delight.
But 2013 was different.
Still a delight, you now heard him before you saw him. There was a “BOMB SQUAD!” on every corner – a brave and dangerous mantra in this day and age – and Wilder, once the student, now the teacher, arrived not as a sparring partner but as someone with designs on showing how much he had improved; showing everyone why he would soon become America’s next world heavyweight champion.
Moreover, when he sparred, which he did regularly that summer, he sparred like no heavyweight I’d ever seen. Utterly relaxed, veins of ice, Wilder would nonchalantly rattle through rounds with Haye, Mariusz Wach and Filip Hrgovic as if the only repercussion of a misstep would be a grazed knee.
For as serious as those men took the sessions, Wilder would be getting buck wild, whooping and hollering during rounds, winding up punches, forever loose. He’d take to goading his sparring partners, asking for more, and even attempted to inspire and motivate them if he noticed they were flagging.
“Come on, champ, let’s go!” he’d mumble through his gum shield. “This is the champ’s camp!”
So impressive was Wilder second time around, you’d look for flaws, mistakes, if only to readdress the balance. You’d take heart whenever Haye landed a right hand, for instance, or whenever Wach got up in his grill and accosted him against the ropes.
At that point, you’d divert your eyes from his hands, and what he did with them, and focus instead on his legs, those spindly stilts propping up a 225-pound body, and wonder how many rounds he’d last in a kickboxing match or, indeed, a boxing match, should somebody crack him clean on the jaw.
“I always say, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’” Wilder explained. “My legs look skinny, I know, but it’s all muscle. I’m all muscle, bone and skin. Think of someone like Thomas Hearns. That dude never had the biggest legs in the world, but, boy, could he bang.”
An answer as good as any, you’d then find yourself going back to his competition, or lack thereof. The thought was this: fight someone decent and Wilder might suddenly come over all flustered and unsteady. He might even go the distance.
“Styles make fights,” Deontay said. “But so far in my career I’ve cancelled out all the styles I’ve come up against by hitting too damn hard. Once you get hit by my shots, style goes out the window, man. Someone like (Sergey) Liakhovich might look effective and durable against other guys, but he hadn’t tasted power like mine. And you saw what happened to him.”
Liakhovich was gone in 104 seconds, curled into the fetal position upon sampling a right hand.
We have also seen, six years on from his London trip, what has happened to Bermane Stiverne, Artur Szpilka, Gerald Washington, Johann Duhaupas, Luis Ortiz and Dominic Breazeale when struck by the tip of Wilder’s whip.
He’s WBC world heavyweight champion now, a man of whom highlight reel knockouts are expected. He’s better than he was back then. He’s all grown up. He’s hitting even harder.